Sunday, July 29, 2012

Desktops, Laptops, Netbooks, Tablets, Smart Phones, oh my

Computer offerings have exploded.  This blog entry is targeted for novice users as an introduction to the many computer options that are currently available.  Finding the type of computer device that will work for you can be a challenge.  In some instances you will find that you will want more than one type of computer depending on your needs.

Desktops is where it started for the home user with traditional laptops arriving on the scene shortly thereafter.  These largely fall into to 2 major categories - a Microsoft Windows ("I'm a PC") computer OR an Apple ("I'm a Mac") computer.  Both have staunch advocates.  
Microsoft Windows "PC":  Tends to be much cheaper than a Mac of similar specs.  PC is the most widely used operating system and has much more software developed for it.
Apple "Mac":  Loyal fans would argue that Macs are much more user friendly and much more stable than PCs.
In the past, consumers tended to choose desktops over laptops if cost were a major consideration.  This is no longer the case and you will no longer find huge price discrepancies between desktops and laptops of similar specifications.  Thus, the most compelling reason to purchase a desktop over a laptop at the current time would be if you are a "tinker bug" who wants to learn about computers or enjoy adding or removing components to your computer.  For most users who just want to "use the computer," laptops are likely more compelling.  They are very portable; do not take up a lot of space in your home and you can easily add monitors, external keyboards and mouse to your laptop.

Netbooks were the natural offshoot of the laptop.  The focus of these devices is portability and longer battery life.  (The trade off is that netbooks typically have much less umph in terms of memory and processing power than laptops).  If you travel and your needs are to both input significant information (such as sending long emails to family members, doing reports, etc.) as well as extract information (from the internet), these computers may be a good choice.  The most popular netbooks are PC based and as such you are able to run popular software such as Microsoft Word or Excel (in contrast to current tablet offerings where this is not an option).

The Apple Iphone and the Blackberry were the forerunners to the smart phone craze.  Smart phones are simply phones that include a computer or if you prefer, a small computer with a phone. Simply stated, a wealth of information is at your fingertips at any location where you can receive cell phone coverage.  The simplicity and elegance of the Iphone makes this choice extremely compelling.  Blackberry phones are very popular in the business and academic communities.  Google Android smart phones are the most recent consumer offering of cell phones.  In contrast to the Iphone where the operating system (software) is paired to a specific device (hardware); Android devices consist of the Android operating system (software) which has been paired to devices (hardware) from a range of manufacturers.  Thus, you will experience more variation (which could be good or bad) among Android devices. 

Following the success of the Iphone and the Ipod, Apple released their widely popular tablet, the Ipad.  (Note:  There are many e-readers, such as the Nook or Kindle which, as the name suggests are targeted to the purpose of reading and which I have not considered in my discussion of "tablets" here.)  Android tablet devices are the primary Apple competitor in the tablet market.  It should be noted that Microsoft is also planning to enter the field with tablet offerings, but it is too early to predict how these devices will fare.  The tablet is a great device for receiving information, such as searching for information on the internet, reading books or other documents or even searching and buying things on-line such as through the Amazon store.  Anyone who has (im)patiently waited for a computer to boot up will be ecstatic about the tablets and smart phones.  Typically these devices are run from battery power and left in a "sleep" state so they are ready to respond to your desires without waiting.  Need to know some esoteric fact?  No problem, just press the on button and your tablet or smart phone is ready to serve you. 

An advantage of both Apple and Android smart phone and tablets is that there are multiple applications (software programs, known as "apps") available.  These apps make it easy to do many things that users commonly want to do.  For example, there are apps to locate businesses around your geographical location (great for traveling) and there are apps that will notify you if something you want comes for sale on Craig's List and there are apps to provide stock quotes, there are even apps to help identify birds and many, many apps for assorted games to help you waste time.  The advantage of the smart phone to the tablet is that it includes the cell phone feature in its delivered / packaged state.  Conversely, this can also be a disincentive as this also implies the need for a cell phone provider which means a monthly expense.  A big advantage of the tablet over the smart phone is simply its size which makes its readability much easier which may be a big factor for older users.  (Although, of course, if you want something that can fit in your pocket, a smart phone would be the obvious choice.)

The disadvantage of the tablets (and smart phones) versus a netbook, laptop or desktop is that of data entry and heavy duty reporting and analytics.  The typical data entry for tablets and smart phones is via the touch screen.  (Yes, I realize that you can get an external blue tooth keyboard, but if you know this already and are able to set this up, this blog is not targeted for you.)  Additionally, current tablet offerings do not have mature and sophisticated word processing (or spreadsheet) type applications such as Microsoft Word and Excel; however, this is likely to change.  Regardless, it is safe to say that if you need to do something like a 30 page report or some other substantial writing or business function (such as spreadsheets or database) you are best served by selecting a netbook, laptop or desktop.

So how about some specific recommendations -

If money is not a driving factor, I would suggest the "New" Ipad with at least 32GB of memory.  (This is the latest or 3rd in the line of Apple Ipads.  This option is currently selling for $599 in the Apple store for the Wifi 32GB version).  Apple tightly controls both the hardware as well as the Ipad app market (though Itunes).  The upside to this is that it provides a level of insulation against software that can harm the user experience (malware, virus, spyware, etc.).  Also, because the hardware and software are consistently the same, you will find many of friends, co-workers and family members who will likely want to share their expertise with you (just be careful not to let them "take over"... make clear, it's your toy, not theirs).

If money is more of a driving consideration, I would suggest a refurbished Ipad 2 with 32GB of memory.  Yes, Apple has a refurbished store and they offer the same warranty on their refurbished products as on their new products.  When it comes to Ipads, I would avoid Craig's list or other used sellers.  I love Craig's list and frequently look at the offerings, but when it comes to Ipads, the offering price has consistently run very close to (and sometimes more than) Apple's refurbished price, BUT without the warranty.  Due to Apple controlling both hardware and software when it comes to the Ipad, you will not see competitive sales of this product; Apple controls the price.  A refurbished Ipad 2 currently sells for around $399 in the Apple store, but you need to check in periodically as this model comes and goes in the store.

I am suggesting at least 32GB (gigabytes) of memory with both Ipad recommendations as (unlike many Android and other tablets) you cannot expand (add) memory to the Ipad.  What you get is what you get and once you start enjoying your Ipad, you can easily start to fill up memory when you consider pictures, music and apps.  In regards to 3G or 4G LTE (ability to access the internet using a cellular connection from AT&T or Verizon), I would suggest an evaluation of your plans for use.  Yes, 3G is nice, but you will also pay more for a cellular enabled Ipad, at which time you will need to further choose between AT&T or Verizon - no you can't switch later and will need to also pay under the plan terms of that carrier (typically starting at $15 per month for limited data).  

Worth considering - the Google Nexus 7 tablet was recently released.  It only comes in 8GB and 16GB and, like the Ipad the memory is NOT expandable (you cannot add a micro SD memory card).  Therefore, I would strongly suggest sticking with the 16GB version which is selling for $249.  Initial reviews appear very positive and the Nexus 7 appears to have a solid operating system, excellent processor and great screen resolution.  As the name implies, the screen size is around 7" as compared to the 10" screen of the Ipad.  Also note the stated difference in the memory; 16 versus 32 for my Ipad recommendations.  Another factor to consider is that there will likely be less friends and family who are familiar with the product and able to offer their unique flavor of "help" in learning about your new tablet.

If you are considering blogging, I would definitely suggest a laptop or netbook and would go with a Windows operating system unless there was a compelling reason to pay the premium price for an Apple laptop.  Pricing is very competitive in this sector which works to the consumer's advantage.  You can often find new laptops from local retailers priced from $300 and up.  New netbooks from local retailers can often be found from $150 - 300.  If you want to blog on a budget, you may be able to pick up a netbook on Craig's list for around $100, but as with any used purchase you want to use some caution.  If you prefer a new laptop or notebook, consider purchasing this item around prime time sale times.  Specifically, "back to school" periods and "Black Friday" (Friday after Thanksgiving) will likely offer up great deals on both laptops and netbooks.

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